Director Pedro Almodóvar
Almodóvar with actor Asier Etxeandia in the background
Almodóvar working with actor Asier Etxeandia
Almodóvar working with actress Julieta Serrano and Antonio Banderas
Almodóvar with Antonio Banderas
Almodóvar surrounded by Asier Etxeandia (left) and Antonio Banderas
Pedro Almodóvar surrounded by Raúl Arévalo (left) and Penélope Cruz
PAIN AND GLORY (Dolor y Gloria) B
Spain (113 mi) 2019 d: Pedro Almodóvar
In something of a playful nod to Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), Almodóvar attempts to express a somewhat fictionalized autobiographical portrait, much of it shot in his own apartment in Madrid, with an overly self-centered Antonio Banderas (winner of the Best Actor award at Cannes), showing a sense of benign resignation as the protagonist Salvador Mallo, wearing many of the director’s recognizable outfits, depicting the life of an aging filmmaker (Almodóvar is now 70) who is suddenly incapacitated by a deluge of maladies, much of it incurred in the aftermath of spinal-fusion surgery, including insomnia, migraines, acid reflux, ulcers, tinnitus, chronic back pain with associated nerve and muscle aches, along with inexplicable choking fits where he can barely breathe, with an animated drawing revealing all the ways the body is afflicted, crushing up pain pills in his food, leaving him dispirited and overly morose. As a result, he is homebound, barely ever making public appearances, preferring to live the life of a hermit, unable to write or tap into his creative forces, as he’s overcome by the chronic pain he endures. Filmmaking is out of the question, as it requires physical strength he simply doesn’t have anymore. So he sits around on his ass and dreams of his childhood, which plays out onscreen, using frequent flashbacks of significant moments in his life throughout the film, all of which help define who he is today, a man supposedly at a crossroads. Ironically, this creative paralysis coincides with the restoration of a film he made thirty years ago, now considered a masterpiece, which is being rescreened at Madrid’s Spanish Cinematheque with a great deal of public fanfare, including a scheduled Q & A after the film with the director and lead actor, which just happens to coincide with the recent restoration of Almodóvar’s own Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) (1987), recalling his battles with actor Eusebio Poncela (but also starring a young Antonio Banderas). The problem is the two haven’t spoken to each other in 30 years due to a fallout during the shoot over how the protagonist was portrayed, as the actor, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia, with a De Niro ferocity), played him dramatically heavy while the director was expecting something comic and light. Having reviewed the film again for the first time in all those many years, he’s come to regret his initial viewpoint, as the actor nails the performance, providing more dramatic intensity than he had anticipated. So swallowing his pride, he makes a trip to the actor’s residence, arriving unannounced, causing a great deal of skepticism, as he’s not exactly greeted warmly. Alberto, however, introduces him to an old habit of his, smoking heroin, which Salvador takes to with unbridled enthusiasm, like the answer to his prayers, as it alleviates the pain better than all known doctor remedies, so he’s immediately hooked, spending days with the actor, who has to literally kick him out to send him home, where he’s immediately at a loss. In a somewhat hilarious scene, he’s takes a cab into the gritty, crime-infested neighborhoods inhabited by groups of blacks, buying drugs off the street from the first person seen, coinciding with a police raid on the street, violently apprehending another suspect, where it’s like a whole other world than the museum-like sanctuary of his own home.
Needless to say, Salvador and Alberto spend nearly every waking hour together, with Alberto famously commenting that his drug supply is delivered to his door with the ease of ordering a pizza. Nodding out in a dream reverie, his drug use seems to arouse a series of memories, all happening inside his head, while Alberto, having nothing better to do, explores what’s on Salvador’s computer, discovering a short play entitled Addiction that he thinks is brilliantly written and could help resuscitate his near extinct career, as he identifies so passionately with the emotional journey. Salvador finds it too autobiographically revealing, preferring to avoid public scrutiny. When the two don’t show up for the scheduled Q & A, but are instead phoned at the last minute, they are put on speakers, amplifying the questions and answers for all sitting in the audience to hear, still smoking their drugs while they speak, with Salvador foolishly confessing the issue he had with Alberto’s performance was his heroin use, as it was something as a director he steered away from, but did go on to acknowledge his opinion of his performance has changed over the years, but by then Alberto is ready to rip his head off, incensed by this public revelation that could squash his career, literally hating the grounds this man walked upon. So after a brief détente another Berlin Wall was constructed between them. This little interlude is hilarious, but fictionalized, as Almodóvar was a child of the 80’s when cocaine use was rampant, which was his particular drug of choice, active on many different fronts, steering away from heroin, though some among his acting ensemble used it, where he witnessed how it interfered in personal relationships, as heroin users became untrustworthy and completely unreliable. Very ironic, then, that it is portrayed as his saving grace, the missing cure for all that ails him. His drug experiences take him back to when he was 9-years old, when his mother (Penélope Cruz) led him to another village, following his father (Raúl Arévalo) and his search for work, ending up living inside a cave, which needs some remodeling, discovering a local laborer who is illiterate, Eduardo (César Vicente), with his mother offering Salvador’s services teaching him to read and write if Eduardo would whitewash the walls and help install a needed sink. This arrangement works perfectly, with little Salvador demonstrating excellent teaching proficiency while Eduardo’s work really changes the look of the place. But the scene with the most profound influence has to do with Eduardo stripping naked to wash himself, an image that still lingers in the back of his mind. The interrelation between the two is exquisitely expressed, each respecting what the other can do, with little Salvador posing for a drawing made by Eduardo, just sitting in a chair reading a book, yet it’s a charming portrait, exhibiting an artistic flair.
Well-acted, nicely edited, and beautifully shot by José Luis Alcaine, with the full color spectrum of Almodóvar colors brightly utilized, creating a dazzling artistic design that heightens one’s appreciation for the film, which could just as easily be entitled Portrait of an Artist as an Old Man. A change of heart sends Salvador back to Alberto’s home, script in hand, offering him a chance to perform it (removing his name as the author), a one-man show, drawing record crowds, where we see a piece of it, an intimate examination of the young life of the artist, including a romantic love affair with another man in Madrid back in the 80’s when his love couldn’t save the man from his heroin addiction, yet it’s presented with such idyllic urgency as if it was happening right before our eyes. Alberto receives a surprise visit backstage from the absent lover in the play who is in search of Salvador after all these years, Federico (Leonardo Sbaraglia), who felt every word of the play, as if knowing it by heart, culminating in a visit to Salvador’s Madrid apartment, where this belated rendezvous is an understated expression of what the passing years do to the body, but not the spirit, which remains as youthful and invigorated as ever, but Federico has a life and family to return to in Buenos Aires, where he runs a restaurant. The eloquence of the visit cannot be forgotten, as it’s a place where memories and reality merge, having a profound effect on Salvador afterwards, throwing away his drugs, revisiting his doctor, receiving the needed medical treatment, assisted by his good friend Mercedes (Norva Navas), his personal assistant that arranges everything, as he attempts to restore the needed equilibrium in his life, rediscovering his creative impulses, as he starts writing again, where we see the title, “El Deseo (Desire),” named after the Almodóvar production company, though it’s actually entitled The First Desire. As he’s about to have throat surgery, he has flashbacks to his aging mother (Julieta Serrano), recalling a promise made to her that he would never fulfill, as she died tragically several years ago before he could return her back to the village where she was born, something that has eternally haunted him. But it’s something he tells her near the end that haunts the rest of us, “I’ve failed you simply by being as I am,” a joltingly humane confession with profound implications. As if by accident, Mercedes shows him a painting discovered earlier in a flea market that has just been sitting around, as if in storage, with no one having a chance to look at it. With a short note written on the back, it’s Eduardo’s drawing of him as a child, turned into a watercolor, paying a debt of thanks for his help, where as if by some miracle, it has finally reached its rightful owner, likely sent years ago, perhaps found amongst his mother’s things. It’s a touching moment that only Salvador could possibly understand, fraught with hidden meaning, merging with the subject of his new project, The First Desire, as we see earlier scenes of himself as a child along with his mother, but as the camera pulls back we see he is filming these moments, back to working again, as the balance is finally restored, where this intimate portrait beautifully provides a poetic arc of his life.